The zone is different for everyone. Some athletes get amped up and excited before they take the field or court and others prefer to be calm and collected inside and out. For those who have experienced it, the zone is revered as the mental space where they are at their best. Some are emotionlessly intense and others are passionately in the moment, but the one universal truth about the zone is the unwavering focus that exists within. Finding it is not necessarily hard to do as long as you understand what it means and how it feels to you. However, if you are unfamiliar with it, or cannot pinpoint a time that you’ve been in it, the outside noise around your game can overtake your focus and shake your confidence.
Outside noise can come in the form of a coach yelling from the sidelines or dugout, parents and fans in the stands barking orders, opponents heckling from across the field, and even self-doubt inside your own head. If you can hear any of that it will be tough to stay focused, and if you are out of focus it is tough to stay competitive. Finding the zone and silencing the noise are essentially one in the same, but how does one do it?
How do I get in the zone and stay focused while performing?
Once again, this looks different for everyone and it is an evolution in itself. Getting in the right headspace is mostly credited to the routine an athlete goes through in preparation for competition. That could be listening to certain music, taking time to share positive self-talk, becoming obsessive over a goal for that day, or even meditation. One element of a routine may help an athlete reach the zone for a while, and it may change into something else down the road. The key is to find one thing that works for you—that gets you into a confident, comfortable headspace—and to stick to it.
To better clarify what the zone feels like, here is a three-tiered metaphor of a spotlight to explain the level of noise that one hears during competition and how badly it effects them:
1. green light
When an athlete is in “the green” they are in the zone. Their focus is purely on the objective at hand, and they can be negatively effected by nothing. Nothing outside of their mind and the process they are following to achieve their objective—whether that be striking out a batter, draining a shot, or dismounting the beam—can get in their way. When you are in the green, you are at your very best. You trust in your training, and your competitiveness has taken over. Things happen naturally when you are in the zone.
2. yellow light
At any given moment an athlete can fall from green to yellow. A fan might be chirping from the stands, an opponent they don’t like may step up to the plate, or they might let a mistake derail their focus. The important thing to understand about the yellow light is that it can be corrected back to green. You just have to recognize that you’ve slipped out of the zone and actively work to get yourself back into it. Once more, it’s not necessarily hard to find the zone once you know what it is and how it feels to you. Fall back on what you know, and regain your focus to get back into “the green.”
3. red light
If you slip from yellow to red, you’re toast. You’ll know this has happened when your nerves creep up, you lose your sense of comfort, and you can literally hear everything. “The noise” has thus far been described as outside influences—whether intentionally or unintentionally—breaking up your focus, but when you are on a red light you’ve lost the ability to filter any of it. Now the opponent who is talking trash, the loud-mouth fan, and the outspoken coach are inside your head at the same time. At this point you are truly on your own.
The red light sounds dramatic, and it is meant to. Every athlete has been there before, whether they want to admit it or not, and it is important to understand how crucial your focus—your ability to find and stay in the zone—is to your success. Everyone has to fail before they can be truly successful, and learning to recognize where you stand mentally in any given moment of competition will help you to better use failures to your advantage. If you can recognize what causes them, you can actively avoid repeating them in the future.
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